Catch the Wave: How to Get Started with Surf Kayaking

If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, always searching for the next water sport to conquer, then surf kayaking should be on your radar. Blending the best of surfing and kayaking, this thrilling activity allows you to ride the waves in a whole new way. In this guide, we’ll dive into what surf kayaking is, explore the different types of surf kayaks, and share essential tips to get you started. So, let’s paddle out and catch some waves!

What is Surf Kayaking?

Surf kayaking is a captivating water sport that combines elements of both surfing and kayaking. It involves taking a specially designed kayak out into the surf zone to catch waves, similar to traditional surfing. Unlike regular kayaking, which is typically done on calm waters like rivers, lakes, or bays, surf kayaking thrives on the dynamic environment of the ocean surf. The aim is to ride the waves smoothly, and if you’re experienced, execute some high-adrenaline maneuvers like cutbacks, bottom turns, and even aerial tricks. Overall, surf kayaking offers a unique blend of the tranquility of kayaking and the excitement of surfing.

Types of Surf Kayaks

When it comes to surf kayaking, choosing the right type of kayak is critical. Two kinds of kayaks are mainly well-suited for this sport: Sit-On-Top Kayaks and Sit-Inside Kayaks. Both come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll delve into below.

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Sit-On-Top Kayaks, as the name suggests, allow you to sit on top of the kayak rather than inside a closed cockpit. These kayaks are generally wider, providing a more stable experience, which is especially useful for beginners in surf kayaking. They also have self-draining holes, making it easier for water to escape and hence, making re-entry simpler if you capsize. One of the main advantages of using a Sit-On-Top kayak for surf kayaking is that it gives you a higher degree of mobility, allowing you to move more freely as you ride the waves. Look for one that specifically says it’s made for the ocean. It is not recommended that you use a recreational kayak.

Reasons for Choosing Sit-On-Top Kayaks:

  • Ease of Use: Generally easier for beginners to start with.
  • Stability: Wider design offers a more stable ride, ideal for choppy conditions.
  • Freedom of Movement: Allows you to easily move your legs and shift your weight.
  • Easy Re-Entry: If you capsize, climbing back on is usually simpler than with Sit-Inside Kayaks.
  • Self-Draining: Holes in the kayak allow water to drain out, keeping the kayak lighter.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-Inside Kayaks offer a more traditional kayaking experience. You sit inside a closed cockpit, which can provide a greater sense of control and responsiveness while navigating through the waves. These kayaks are often preferred by more experienced kayakers who are looking for a tighter, more precise ride. Since you’re enclosed, it’s easier to use your lower body to control the kayak, allowing for more complex maneuvers. However, if you capsize, re-entering a Sit-Inside Kayak can be more challenging compared to a Sit-On-Top, and you may need to practice Eskimo rolls to right yourself in the water. The best option is to use a whitewater kayak with a spray skirt to keep all of the waves out! It is not recommended that you use a recreational kayak.

Reasons for Choosing Sit-Inside Kayaks:

  • Greater Control: The enclosed design controls the kayak’s movements.
  • Streamlined Shape: Often faster and easier to paddle, especially for experienced kayakers.
  • Lower Center of Gravity: Offers a more precise, tight ride on the waves.
  • Advanced Maneuvers: Easier to execute complex moves like rolls and cutbacks.
  • Protection from Elements: Keeps you somewhat shielded from cold water and wind.

Getting Started with Surf Kayaking

So, you’ve decided to venture into the exciting world of surf kayaking. Welcome aboard! But before you can paddle out to meet the waves, there are a few things you’ll need to get started. This includes picking the right kayak for your needs (which we’ve already covered above), and gathering essential gear and accessories. While surf kayaking doesn’t require a ton of equipment, there are some key items that you shouldn’t overlook.

Gear and Accessories

  • Kayak and PaddleFirst and foremost, you’ll need a surf kayak and a paddle. Your choice of kayak will depend on various factors, such as your skill level, the types of waves you’ll be riding, and whether you prefer a Sit-On-Top or a Sit-Inside model.
  • Wetsuit or Drysuit – Since surf kayaking involves spending extended periods in the water, it’s crucial to have a good wetsuit or drysuit. This will not only keep you warm but also offer some level of protection from cuts and scrapes. The thickness of the suit will depend on the water temperature; generally, colder waters will require a thicker suit.
  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD) – Safety first! A high-quality PFD (Personal Flotation Device) is a must-have for any water sport, including surf kayaking. Opt for one that allows good arm movement, as you’ll need the freedom to paddle and maneuver your kayak.
  • Helmet – Protecting your head should be a priority, especially when you’re dealing with unpredictable ocean waves. Choose a helmet that fits snugly and is specifically designed for water sports.
  • Spray Skirt (for Sit-Inside Kayaks) – If you’re using a Sit-Inside Kayak, a spray skirt is essential to keep water from entering the cockpit. This accessory attaches to the rim of the kayak and fits around your waist, forming a watertight seal.
  • Safety Leash – A safety leash will keep your paddle attached to you or your kayak, so you don’t lose it in the surf. This is especially important because you’ll rely heavily on your paddle for stability and control.
  • Footwear – A good pair of water shoes or booties can provide extra grip and protect your feet from sharp rocks or shells on the ocean floor.
  • Dry Bag – Last but not least, a dry bag is useful for storing personal items like your phone, keys, and snacks. Make sure it’s securely fastened to your kayak before heading out.

A green kayak on the right side in the ocean with a kayak paddle.

Techniques for Surf Kayaking

Surf kayaking is as much about skill as it is about thrill. The ocean is unpredictable, and being able to maneuver your kayak effectively can make all the difference between a wipeout and the ride of your life. Let’s break down the techniques into two categories: The Basics and Advanced Techniques.

The Basics

Learning the basic techniques in surf kayaking sets the foundation for your future adventures. If you’re new to the sport, these are the essential skills you should focus on:

  • Paddling Out – Getting past the breaking waves can be a challenge. The key is to time your paddling when the sets of waves have a lull. Use strong, decisive paddle strokes to move beyond the break zone quickly.
  • Catching a Wave – To catch a wave, you’ll want to start paddling when the wave is about 6-10 feet behind you. Lean forward to increase your speed and match the wave’s pace. As the wave lifts the back of your kayak, paddle hard to ensure you’ve caught it.
  • Bracing – Being able to maintain balance in rough waters is crucial. A low brace (keeping your paddle close to the water, with elbows bent) can help you stabilize the kayak and prevent capsizing.
  • Turning – Turning efficiently helps you navigate the waves. To turn your kayak, use a sweeping motion with your paddle on the opposite side to which you want to turn. Leaning into the turn can also help you maneuver more quickly.
  • Exiting a Wave – As your ride comes to an end, it’s important to exit the wave safely to avoid being rolled over. Use your paddle to steer out of the wave’s path and prepare to paddle back out again.

Advanced Techniques

Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can start exploring some advanced techniques that will make your surf kayaking sessions even more exhilarating.

  • CutbacksA cutback allows you to change your direction rapidly while riding a wave. This involves a sharp turn back towards the breaking part of the wave, allowing you to extend your ride.
  • Bottom Turns – After catching a wave, a bottom turn helps you change direction at the base of the wave. This sets you up for more advanced moves or to position yourself better for a longer ride.
  • Rolling – Knowing how to perform an Eskimo roll can be a lifesaver. If you capsize, this technique allows you to right your kayak without exiting it. It involves a specific set of paddle and body movements and often requires practice to master.
  • Aerial Moves – For the daring among us, aerial moves like launching off the wave’s lip can be thrilling. But these maneuvers require precise timing, speed, and control. Practicing in smaller waves can help you build up to these moves.
  • Wave Selection – Picking the right wave to ride is both an art and a science. Advanced surf kayakers can read wave patterns to determine which waves offer the best riding potential. Factors like wave height, speed, and angle can make a significant difference in your surfing experience.

A yellow sit in surf kayak half way into the water.

Safety Measures

No matter how exciting surf kayaking may be, safety should always come first. A single oversight can turn a thrilling adventure into a dangerous ordeal. The ocean is unpredictable, and the more prepared you are, the better your chances of enjoying a fun and safe outing. In this section, we’ll discuss two key aspects: understanding weather and wave conditions, and the necessary safety gear.

Weather and Wave Conditions

Sky Conditions

  • Clear or partly cloudy skies are typically ideal for surf kayaking. Overcast conditions aren’t necessarily bad, but they can make it harder to read the waves and may indicate an approaching storm system.

Wind Speed and Direction

  • Light to moderate offshore winds (winds blowing from the land out to sea) are generally the best for surf kayaking. Offshore winds help to ‘clean up’ the waves, making them more orderly and easier to navigate. Onshore winds (blowing from the sea to the land) tend to make the ocean choppy and can make it more challenging to paddle out and catch waves.

Water Temperature

  • The optimal water temperature depends on your gear and comfort level, but generally speaking, milder temperatures between 60-75°F (15-24°C) offer a good balance that allows for longer sessions without overheating or getting too cold.

Wave Height

  • For beginners, waves between 1-3 feet are ideal for learning how to navigate and catch waves without being overwhelmed. Intermediate and advanced surf kayakers may prefer waves in the 4-6 feet range, which offer more speed and are more exhilarating to ride. Anything above 6 feet is generally considered challenging and should be reserved for highly experienced kayakers.

Wave Period and Frequency

  • The wave period (time between successive waves) can significantly impact your surf kayaking experience. A longer wave period (e.g., 12-15 seconds) usually means more powerful and better-organized waves. Frequent, short-period waves (e.g., 5-7 seconds) are less predictable and can be difficult to navigate, especially for beginners.

Swell Direction

  • Knowing the swell direction can help you understand where the waves will be breaking and which areas might be more challenging or easier to ride. A direct swell is generally preferable as it produces waves that break more cleanly and are easier to catch.

Tidal Conditions

  • The state of the tide can affect the shape and size of the waves. Some surf spots are better during high tide, while others offer optimal conditions at low tide. Familiarize yourself with local tidal patterns and seek advice from experienced local kayakers.

Crowd Factor

  • While not directly a weather or wave condition, the number of people in the water can impact your surf kayaking experience. Less crowded conditions are generally more enjoyable and safer, especially for those who are still mastering the basics.

Destinations for Surf Kayaking

Ah, the allure of the ocean and the thrill of the ride! But where to go for the best surf kayaking experience? The beauty of this sport is that you can do it almost anywhere there’s a coastline, but some destinations stand out as particularly exhilarating.

U.S. West Coast – California and Oregon

Known for its rugged coastline and consistent swells, the U.S. West Coast is a haven for surf kayakers. Places like Santa Cruz in California offer a range of wave sizes, suitable for all skill levels.

The East Coast – North Carolina and Florida

The East Coast is known for its warm waters and seasonal swells, making it a popular destination. Spots like Cape Hatteras in North Carolina or Cocoa Beach in Florida are great for beginners and experts alike.

Europe – Portugal and Ireland

The coasts of Portugal and Ireland offer diverse kayaking experiences. While Portugal boasts warm waters and a variety of wave sizes, Ireland offers cold-water kayaking experiences with some seriously big waves for the pros.

Australia – Gold Coast

The Gold Coast in Australia is renowned for its long sandy beaches and excellent surf conditions. The waves can get pretty powerful, making it more suitable for intermediate and advanced kayakers.

South Africa – Cape Town

Cape Town offers a range of surf kayaking spots, from beginner-friendly beaches to challenging big-wave locations. The colder waters here make a wetsuit a necessity.


Surf kayaking is an exhilarating way to connect with the ocean and test your skills against the power of the waves. Whether you’re just starting out or looking to elevate your game, understanding the basics, techniques, safety measures, and optimal conditions can set you on the path to becoming a proficient surf kayaker. And let’s not forget, the world is your oyster when it comes to thrilling destinations. So, what are you waiting for? Grab your gear, and let’s catch some waves!

A kayaker paddling towards an ocean wave about to go surf kayaking.


Q: Is surf kayaking suitable for beginners?

A: Absolutely! With proper training and safety measures, beginners can enjoy surf kayaking. Just make sure to start with smaller waves and work your way up.

Q:  What kind of gear do I need for surf kayaking?

A: A surf kayak, Personal Flotation Device (PFD), helmet, and paddle are the basics. Additional safety gear like a whistle and a first-aid kit are also recommended.

Q: How do I choose the right surf kayak?

A: Consider factors like stability, maneuverability, and your skill level. Sit-on-top kayaks are generally easier for beginners, while sit-inside kayaks offer more control for experienced kayakers.

Q: What are the best conditions for surf kayaking?

A: Optimal conditions include light to moderate offshore winds, clear skies, and wave heights that match your skill level. Always check local weather and tide reports before heading out.

Q: Is surf kayaking a seasonal activity?

A: This largely depends on your location and tolerance for different water temperatures. With the right gear, you can surf kayak throughout the year in many locations.


PInterest post pin for surf kayaking.

The author, Sophia Monroe, kayaking.

Sophia Monroe

My initial goal to inspire others to embrace the wonderful world of water sports has evolved into a commitment to share my love to the widest audience possible. In a world increasingly consumed by sedentary lifestyles and digital devices, it's vital to reconnect with nature, prioritize physical activity, mental health, and live life to its fullest. I believe that by providing information and resources, we can empower ourselves to embrace strength, vitality, and a life lived to the fullest. Let's embark on this journey together!

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